The Vernacular: Setting the Record Straight

More than a few of those commenting enthusiastically aboutthe release of Summorum Pontificum have suggestedthat some of the liturgical reforms made in the wake of Vatican II were not inaccord with the Councils intent.  Itscertainly true that some of the reforms went beyond what of the Council fathershad envisioned.  Nevertheless, one shouldbe cautious about asserting the existence of a rupture between the Council andthe reforms made in its name.

The use of Latin is a good example. Many of those who believe that a Mass entirely in the vernacular is notin accord with the wishes of the Council like to cite Article 36 of Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Constitutionon the Sacred Liturgy; SC hereafter) which states that the use of Latinlanguage, except where particular law prescribes otherwise, is to be preservedin the Latin rites.

While its true that most of the Council fathers did notenvision that Latin would vanish from the liturgy in the way it did, it is notaccurate to see the subsequent flow of events as a betrayal of theCouncil.  The expansion of the use of thevernacular was the result of Pope Paul VI and the national episcopalconferences exercising the authority the Council had granted them to reform andregulate the liturgy.

Article 36 of SC indeed deals with this issue, but it isworth quoting in full:


(1) The use of the Latin language, except when particular law prescribesotherwise, is to be preserved in the Latin rites.

(2) But since the use of the vernacular, whether in the Mass, theadministration of the sacraments, or the other parts of the liturgy, mayfrequently be of great advantage to the people, a wider use may be made of it,especially in readings, directives, and in some prayers and chants.  Regulations governing this will be givenseparately in subsequent chapters.

(3) These norms being observed, itis for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in article22.2, to decide whether and to what extent the vernacular language is to beused.  Its decrees have to be approved,that is confirmed, by the Apostolic See. Where circumstances warrant, it is to consult with bishops of neighboringregions which have the same language.

(4) Translations from the Latin foruse in the liturgy must be approved by the competent territorial ecclesiasticalauthority already mentioned.

Few issues were more controversial in the conciliar debateover SC than the use of the vernacular. There were a small group of bishops who opposed virtually anyconcessions to the vernacular.  There wasalso a group of bishopsparticularly from mission territorieswho favoredalmost complete use of the vernacular (as well as other adaptations of theliturgy to the cultures where they were working).  The largest group took a mediating position,favoring the use of the Latin in common prayers, readings, and other partspertaining to the people. 

In the end, no part of the Mass was specifically excludedfrom consideration as to whether use of the vernacular would be pastorallyappropriate.  There was an attempt on the part of some bishops to exclude the Canon, butit was not successful.  Article 54 of SC,which speaks specifically of the use of vernacular in the Mass, is very generalin its prescriptions.  It suggests thatconcessions to the vernacular dealing with the parts said by the faithful betreated using the norms in Article 36 (see above), and concessions dealing withparts said by the priest be treated using the norms in Article 40, which dealswith cases where more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed.   It wasalso agreed that the episcopal conferences (competent territorialecclesiastical authority) would be given the power to decide to what extentthe vernacular should be used in their territory.  Those decisions would have to be approved,that is confirmed by the Holy See.   

In the wake of the approval of SC in December 1963, aCouncil for the Implementation of the Sacred Liturgy, also known as theConsilium was established by Pope Paul VI. By April of 1964, the Consilium had developedand the Pope hadapprovednorms for the use of the vernacular. These norms provided that the vernacular could be used in virtuallyevery portion of the Mass other than the Roman Canon (the EucharisticPrayer).   Almost immediately, episcopalconferences began petitioning to make use of the vernacular in allowed areas.

While the Council, the Pope, and the Consilium had assumedthat this would be the extent of concessions to the vernacular, the actualexperience of its use led to requests for additional concessions with respectto the Canon.  In April 1965, Pope PaulVI allowed the bishops conferences to decide whether the Prefaces to the Canoncould be said in the vernacular.  InJanuary 1967, he gave them similar authority with respect to the entire Canon.

Were these concessions a distortion of the Council?  It is hard to see how this would be thecase.  While desiring to preserve Latinin the Roman Rite, the Council specifically delegated authority over theextension of the vernacular to the episcopal conferences.  The Pope, of course, had always possessed theauthority to regulate the liturgy.  Boththe Pope and the episcopal conferenceswhich, it must be said, were composedalmost entirely of bishops who had recently returned from the Councilexercisedthat authority in the light of actual experience with the use of thevernacular. 

To the extent that the Council fathers can be said to havehad a collective vision with respect to the use of language, it was that therewould be diversity.  In some territories,more of the Mass would be in Latin; in other territories, there would be moreuse of the vernacular.  In all cases, thepeople who would make the decision as to the balance between Latin and thevernacular would be the bishops of a particular territory, with those decisionssubject to confirmation by the Holy See.

Can one quarrel with the decisions that were made?  Certainly. No one has ever suggested that infallibilityapplies to papal, curial or episcopal decisions regarding the liturgy.  In fairness, it should also be said that thosewho see any use of Latin in the liturgy as contrary to the intent of theCouncil dont have much of a leg to stand on.

But lets put an end to loose talk about how Paul VI wasmanipulated by his liturgical advisors into making decisions contrary to theintent of the Council.  Paul VI and hisbrother bishops exercised the authority the Council had given them to makedecisions about the use of the vernacular in light of local pastoralneeds.  That is why use of the vernacularwas expanded and why it will continue to be used as the principal language ofthe liturgy for the foreseeable future.

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